Introduction:

This essay analyses the factors that facilitated the establishment of al-Qaeda through addressing three aspects of the group, namely, ideology, organisation, and militancy. This analysis first examines the development of Salafi-Jihadism through the 1979 siege of Mecca and the writings of al-Utaybi that embedded the notion of defensive Jihad into the Salafi belief. This is proceeded by an analysis of the MAK and the role of Azzam and bin Laden in drafting an organisational model that would later lay the foundation for al-Qaeda’s recruitment, fundraising, and administration strategies. The last section explores the 1998 embassy bombings following bin Laden’s exile and the rise of al-Zawahiri and the global Salafi-Jihadist movement. The Saudi Kingdom’s shift towards Western support and al-Zawahiri’s bombings were two significant factors that internationalised al-Qaeda and solidified the organisation’s near and far enemy.


Al-Qaeda is an international militant organisation that is grounded in the belief of Salafist-Jihadism. Whilst the organisation was only regarded as a ‘Jihadist-Salafi movement’ by its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 1994, al-Qaeda’s scholarship and militant activity illustrates a strong derivation from Salafi-Jihadist belief. Salafism advocates for a return to true Sunni Islam through promoting Tawhid (monotheism), the rejection of modernity, and the removal of bid’ah (innovations) in Islam. The word Jihad is derived from ‘Jihada’ or ‘to labour, struggle, or exert effort’, however its legal definition is widely noted as al-qital (fighting) (Maher 2017, 32). The concatenated phase, Jihadist Salafism, utilises Jihad to achieve the puritanical aims of the Salafi movement (Maher 2017, 32). This analysis explores lesser Jihad, or Jihad against an enemy of Islam (Jihad of the sword) (Muluk, Sumaktoyo & Ruth 2013, 103). Additionally, Jihad is examined as a manifestation of the Salafi-Jihadist doctrine (Maher 2017, 34). This essay explores three factors that led to the formation of al-Qaeda and explores the ideologues that underpin them. The first factor is the development of the Salafi-Jihadist ideology and its culmination in the 1979 Siege of Mecca. In this section, the Salafi-Jihadist ideologue, Juhayman al-Utaybi, and his role in promoting and exhibiting this belief is examined. The next factor is the Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), the organisational precursor to al-Qaeda, which operated as a fundraising, recruitment, and administrative body for the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War. Here, the scholarly focus of Abdullah Azzam in promoting the concept of Jihad, and the administrative focus of Osama bin Laden in operating the organisation is analysed. The third factor is the shift from regional to international militancy, namely, al-Qaeda’s establishment of a near and far enemy and the role of the 1998 embassy bombings in facilitating the organisation’s global notoriety. This is accompanied by an analysis of Ayman al-Zawahiri and his role in globalising the al-Qaeda movement.

Juhayman al-Utaybi: Salafist-Jihadism and the Siege of Mecca

The rise of Salafist-Jihadism can be traced back to the anti-western sentiment propagated by Juhayman al-Utaybi, and the occupation of the Grand Mosque in the 1979 Seige of Mecca. The writings of Juhayman al-Utaybi and the Siege of Mecca in 1979 are widely regarded as the birth, and the first exhibition of the Salafi-Jihadist movement, respectively (Hegghammer & Lacriox 2007, 111; Lacey 2009, 18). Therefore, it is crucial to examine al-Utaybi’s role in the development of Salafi-Jihadism.

After serving as Corporal of the Saudi National Guard for 18-years, al-Utaybi moved to Medina in in 1973 and joined a Salafist movement called Al-Jamaa al-Salafiya al-Muhtasiba (‘the Salafi group that commands right and forbids wrong’) (Lacey 2009, 18). The group was established by a few of the disciples of Muhammed Nasiruddin al-Albani, an Islamic scholar who wrote extensively on the importance of quietism in Salafism, a belief that promotes obedience to the government and a focus on personal affairs (Lacey 2009, 138). However, the military history of al-Utaybi led him to manipulate the group’s peaceful doctrines following his appointment as leader in 1977 (Hegghammer & Lacriox 2007, 111; Lacey 2009, 25). Al-Utaybi developed a rejection of Western influence, through witnessing the growing influence of western values in the Saudi Kingdom and the subsequent modernization of Islam (Hegghammer & Lacriox 2007, 104). Moreover, he propagated the beliefs of prominent Islamic scholar Sayyid Qutb, that advocated for the ‘advance of Islam’ through ‘violent methods’ (Trofimov 2008, 131). This was a crucial shift in Salafist Jihadism, as al-Utaybi weaved Jihadism into the Salafi belief (Maher 2017, 31; Raffie 2012, 15). In his recordings, al-Utaybi can be heard criticising Saudi royals, stating that the family had abandoned jihad and instead vows ‘allegiance to the Christians [America]’, tainting Islam with ‘evil and corruption’ (Lacey 2009, 26). Moreover, al-Utaybi himself wrote that ‘God has commanded [all Muslims] to wage Jihad’ with the primary aim of establishing Hakimiyya (‘an Islamic state’) (Lacey 2009, 27; Maher 2017, 170). In response to harsh criticism from former group leaders, al-Utaybi split from the group in 1977 and formed a rejectionist faction known as al-Ikhwan (the brothers). The establishment of al-Ikhwan led to the 1979 Siege of Mecca, which is viewed by scholars as the pinnacle of the development of the Salafi Jihadist ideology. At 5:18am on November 20th, 1979, a gunshot was fired within the Grand Mosque (Trofimov 2007, 14). Armed men emerged from different areas within the building, alongside al-Utaybi who seized the loudspeaker to voice his frustrations with the increasing modernization of Islam and the Western leaning Saudi government (Trofimov 2007, 17; Lacey 2009, 30). Al-Utaybi also commanded all those praying to return to the ‘pure and harsh faith’ exercised by the Prophet Mohammed, exhibiting his Salafi belief (Lacey 2009, 56). The occupation of the Mosque lasted until December 4th when the Saudi government re-established control over the mosque, capturing al-Utaybi and the remaining gunmen (Trofimov 2007, 56). The Siege of Mecca is an embodiment of the Salafi Jihadist objectives that were later adopted by the al-Qaeda faction, and an event that inspired the ideology of bin Laden (Maher 2017, 16). Through promoting Jihad and a rejection of the growing influence of the west and the modernization of Islam, al-Utaybi both crafted and embodied the Salafi-Jihadist framework on which al-Qaeda is established.

Maktab al-Khidamat

In 1984, Palestinian theologian and scholar, Abdullah Azzam, and future al-Qaeda figurehead, Osama bin Laden, jointly founded Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), the organisational precursor to al-Qaeda (Hegghammer 2020, 205; Coll 2004, 191). MAK operated as a fundraising and recruitment group for the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war (Hegghammer 2020, 161; Coll 2004, 601). Azzam utilised MAK to promote his scholarship on Jihad, whilst Bin Laden adopted the role of MAK’s administrator, managing fundraising and recruitment (Hegghammer 2020, 209). The operation of MAK enabled the establishment of al-Qaeda through both its organisational success and widespread promotion, and subsequent support for, Jihad (Bergen & Klayman 2001, 54).

Abdullah Azzam and the Ideology of MAK

Through his writings on the Muslim requirement to exercise Jihad and establishment of the 1984 Badr project to unify Mujahideen fighters, Azzam was a crucial figure in the formation MAK (Hegghammer 2020, 212; Chiliand 2007, 302). Azzam’s focus on Jihad originated from previous studies in Islam and Sharia, in tandem with an objection to Israel’s expansionism in his homeland of Palestine (Hegghammer 2020, 303). Azzam utilised the MAK platform to promote his magazine, al-Jihad, in which he argues for a unified Muslim fighting force and develops Al-Utaybi’s sentiment of the Muslim requirement to serve Jihad, stating that it is an ‘lifelong obligation’ (Chaliand & Blin 2007, 294; Bergen 2001, 53). In one of his books on the Soviet-Afghan war and the notion of ‘perpetual Jihad’, Azzam argues that the Soviet invasion is another example of nation-states tearing Islamic nations apart (McGregor 2003 94). He affirms that the Soviet-Afghan war is a theatre for the ‘redemption for two centuries of defeat and humiliation’. Having mentioned in a recording that he is ‘Salafi in [his] belief and thought’, Azzam’s thesis affirms the necessity of defensive jihad in the Salafi belief, with the goal of reviving the ‘authentic and pure’ form of Islam (Hegghammer 2020, 91; Maher 2017, 7). Defensive Jihad is an armed attack launched in response to a ‘external political event’ such as ‘invasion, civil unrest’, or a ‘breakdown in social order’ (Maher 2017, 38; Coll 2004, 76). It is from the notion of defensive Jihad that Azzam conceived the idea for ‘Al-Qaeda al-Sulba (a firm foundation)’, one of the first phases of al-Qaeda, in which he proposed that Jihad in Afghanistan could potentially transgress into Jihad in Palestine (Hegghammer 2020, 354; Chiliand & Blin 2007, 314). Azzam addressed his statement that Islamic nations are being torn apart through the 1984 Badr Project, in which he aimed to unify the Jihadist force (Hegghammer 2020, 330). This project assembled many different sub-groups of the Mujahideen force into a singular fighting body (Hegghammer 2020, 330). Azzam set up the Badr camp, which housed 300 Mujahideen leaders from different factions for a period of two-weeks to conduct military training operations (Hegghammer 2020, 331). Whilst the initiative further highlighted the divisions within the Mujahideen force, Badr was successful in uniting Arab volunteers to form the Afghan Arabs, an umbrella term referring to all Mujahideen fighters (Hegghammer 2020, 346). Al-Qaeda would later draw upon Azzam’s unification successes through the Badr project in its bid to draft and unite fighters from across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) (Baken & Mantzikos 2015, 170). The significance of MAK in the development of al-Qaeda lies heavily in the promotion and development of the notion of Jihad. Through the unification of the Mujahideen fighting force, Azzam played a crucial role in the development of the Jihadist ideology that later underpinned al-Qaeda.

Osama Bin Laden and the Administration of MAK

Bin Laden’s role in MAK was primarily to administer, fundraise, and recruit volunteers to fight alongside the Mujahideen. Bin Laden was strongly influenced both by his former University lecturer, Abdullah Azzam, and the Salafi-Jihadist writings of al-Utaybi, contesting the theological legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy (Bergen & Klayman, 48). The 1979 Siege of Mecca and Bin Laden’s move to Peshawar, Pakistan to join Azzam and the Mujahideen the same year, were two key factors that developed bin Laden’s Jihadist ideology (Bergen & Klayman, 48; Mockaitis 2010 38). Contrasting Azzam’s scholarly activity, bin Laden took on the role of the administrator of MAK, which largely centred around the financing and recruitment of fighters (Mockaitis 2010, 40). Born into an extremely wealthy Saudi family, bin Laden almost unilaterally financed MAK in its early development through providing monthly sums of $25,000 to the organisation (Bergen & Klayman 2001, 56). Additionally, bin Laden would offer potential volunteers $300 per month with the aim of incentivising recruitment throughout the region (Bergen & Klayman 2001, 56). He used his status to effectively funnel money through MAK by working closely with Prince Turki, a member of the House of Saud, and operating as an extended ‘arm of Saudi intelligence’ (Bergen & Klayman 2001, 55). This legitimization of MAK led to further sponsorship, with Saudi Arabian Airlines offering a 75% discount for those travelling to Peshawar to fight alongside the Mujahideen in the ‘holy war’ against the Soviets (Bergen & Klayman 2001, 55). As a result, bin Laden successfully recruited between twenty-five thousand and fifty thousand volunteers (Bergen & Klayman 2001, 55). Bin Laden’s experience as a fundraiser for MAK led to his later success in financing al Qaeda, as he successfully received funnelled sponsorship through ‘mosques, websites, banks’, and other high-profile individual contributors (Abuza 2003, 170). In continuing to promote MAK, Bin Laden acquired a warrior status among Arab Jihadists following his participation in the 1987 Battle of Jaji (Coll 2004, 200). On April 17, 1987, Soviet forces attacked bin Laden’s new military compound in the Jaji district near the Pakistan-Afghan border (Bergen & Klayman 2001, 57; Bergen 2006, 50; Coll 2004, 200). Launching air strikes from attack helicopters and fighter jets, the Soviets forced bin Laden and his fighters to retreat (Coll 2004, 200). Twelve Mujahideen fighters were killed, however, a wounded bin Laden emerged as a war hero (Halverson, Goodall Jr & Corman 2011, 55). With his newfound status, bin Laden embarked on a media campaign to enhance recruitment to fight alongside the Mujahideen. Having seen combat experience, bin Laden’s campaign now carried more legitimacy, as he could tell his war story to appeal to new volunteers (Hegghammer 2020, 264; Bergen & Klayman 2001, 57). During this campaign, bin Laden travelled to a Kuwaiti hospital where he met his future organisational partner, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who worked at the hospital as a surgeon (Coll 2004, 201). Working closely with bin Laden to establish al-Qaeda, the military focus Al-Zawahiri’s brought to MAK transformed the organisation from a regional enterprise into a global Jihadist organisation (Coll 2004, 201). Bin Laden’s experience in the financing, administering, and recruiting volunteers for MAK facilitated his success in establishing the transnational network of al-Qaeda.

The Near and Far Enemy

The third factor that led to the formation of al-Qaeda is the internationalisation of Jihad, and the establishment of both a near and far enemy, namely, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, respectively. The near enemy refers to apostate governments within the Middle Eastern region, whereas the far enemy refers to Western governments, namely, the United States (Steinberg & Werenfels 2007, 408).

Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, bin Laden approached the Saudi government and offered the services of his emerging faction, al-Qaeda, to defend the Kingdom against Saddam’s military intervention (Mockaitis 2010, 35). Riding on his success in prompting a Soviet retreat, bin Laden boasted about his faction’s military capabilities, claiming that he could assemble an army greater than Saddam’s 100,000 troops within ‘three months’ (Mockaitis 2010, 36). However, the King Fahd of the House of Saud refused the offer and instead called upon US support (Mockaitis 2010, 36). This was a key event in the ideological formation of al Qaeda, as bin Laden turned against the House of Saud, echoing al-Utaybi’s concern of the threat of an increasingly westernized and innovated Islam (Mockaitis 2010, 72; Riedel & Saab, 2008, 34). Bin Laden would continue to voice this critique, affirming in one statement that the Saudi government ‘open[ed] the door to Western (‘Crusader’) and Jewish (‘Zionist’) domination of the Muslim world’ (Riedel & Saab, 2008, 34). The Salafist portion of Bin Laden’s Salafi-Jihadist ideology is echoed in his call for the implementation of ‘true Sharia’, and his assertion that Jihad will be waged on all who ‘[fail] to govern according to Sharia’. It was the denial of bin Laden’s military support and his subsequent exile from Saudi Arabia, in addition to the increasing influence of the US in Saudi relations that solidified Saudi Arabia as al-Qaeda’s near enemy.

Bin Laden’s split with Azzam in 1988 enabled the rise of al-Zawahiri and the transformation of al-Qaeda into an international militant organisation. Al-Zawahiri spearheaded the final stage of al-Qaeda’s formation by exercising defensive Jihad against its far enemy, the United States (Mansfield 2006, 25; Coll 2004, 449). Bin Laden’s ‘soft-mannered’ and ‘project-oriented’ focus was quickly overshadowed by al-Zawahiri’s violent campaign (Bergen 2006, 221). Assuming the position of military leader in 1998, Al-Zawahiri led two of al-Qaeda’s first ‘big job[s]’ that gained the organisation international notoriety (Bergen 2006, 223). These were the 1998 US embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, marking the birth of al-Qaeda’s global Jihadist campaign (Bergen 2006, 105). The Nairobi attack was led by two al-Qaeda operatives who planted explosives near the city’s US embassy on the morning of August 7, 1998 (Bergen 2006, 223). The attack killed two-hundred and one Kenyans and twelve Americans, injuring another four thousand (Bergen 2006, 223). Just nine minutes after the Nairobi bombing, an explosion was set off in the US embassy in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania killing eleven Tanzanians (Bergen 2006, 223). Upon hearing about the attacks, Former US Secretary of State, Madeline Albright asserted that the capture of bin Laden was ‘of primary importance to the US government’ (Coll 2004, 563). This global notoriety marked a critical stage in al-Qaeda’s formation, as the organisation solidified its near enemy (Saudi Arabia) and its far enemy (the United States) (Coll 2004, 554). The Western sympathy of the Saudi government, and the continuous US presence in Middle Eastern affairs led to the establishment of the notion of a near and far enemy, respectively, solidifying two targets of al-Qaeda’s global Jihadist campaign.

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